A Review of Huston Smith’s Memoir, And Live Rejoicing, Chapters from a Charmed Life
The expansion of my spiritual awareness in adulthood was marked by a course on world religions I took my first semester of college. Now, more than 40 years later, I read his memoir, And Live Rejoicing, Chapters from a Charmed Life, and realize just how very important the influence of Huston Smith’s early book, The Religions of Man (later re-titled The World’s Religions) has been to my life.
Throughout adulthood I have possessed a seemingly intrinsic awareness of the thread connecting all the primary religions of the world and I have felt a kinship to the heart and spirit within mankind as a whole. Huston Smith, age 92 at the time of publishing, tells a profoundly simple story that is bound to crack your heart open through the sheer sweetness of his being, and awaken in you a sense of intrinsic union with mankind and the universe.
I am given to weeping each time I go back to certain sections of the book. There isn’t a specific reason other than I am feeling such a deep truth awaken in me that I am moved beside myself, a great place to be, and a primary point of his work—to step outside the bounds of ego.
Without it being a “how-to” dissertation, he elicits transcendence through the very selfless way he tells the story of his interesting relationships with some of the great spiritual leaders and evolutionaries of the 20th century.
In the introduction, Phil Cousineau offers a condensed perspective of the man, and from which I derive cornerstones of Huston Smith’s rich history, including the following convictions: “Life’s challenge is to make the joy an inclusive, all embracing category that encompasses tragedy and transforms it,” that “We are in good hands,” and that living “in gratitude for the fact that we should do everything we can to maximize our human potential for happiness.” He also states, “At the center of religious life is a peculiar kind of joy, the prospect of a happy ending that blossoms from necessarily painful ordeals, the promise of human difficulties embraced and overcome.”
While religions of man have been his starting point, the understanding he has gleaned over a lifetime of seeking is way beyond the confines of any religious dogma. Rather, Huston’s life has been more about the origins of the Latin word religare, which means “bind together.” His primary guidance, “Follow the light, wherever it may lead…with one eye focused on eternity, the other focused on pressing issues of the day,” show us that winnow wisdom from an examined life, scoured for meaning and feeling the full spectrum of human emotion, speaks of a life well lived.
Huston Smith offers a timeless caution in his book, The Way Things Are, which sums it up nicely: “Beware of the differences that blind us to the unity that binds us.”
His life has been a “coniunctio, a putting together of opposites,” and he has developed many seemingly unlikely relationships. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead said that what he and Huston Smith have in common is, “We’re both in the transportation business.” The vast world of the mystics beyond what we see is the world that has “housed” Smith, while he dedicated his life to helping reconcile two of the most potent forces in human history, science and religion.
In And Live Rejoicing it is Smith’s choice of stories and the way he presents the wisdom of his peers that highlights the integrity of the man himself. From the Native Americans he learned to honor the “Great Chain of Being with its multiple levels of reality.”
Pinned from Gaia
He says, “The first time I see the sun every day infuses me with a sense of rejoicing, as I imaging the sunlight bringing life and joy and beauty.”
From one of Aldous Huxley’s meditations he shares, “God is, and is ours—immanent in each sentient being, the life of all lives, the spirit animating every soul…He possesses a mode of existence which is incommensurable and incompatible with the mode of existence possessed by human beings in their natural, unspiritualized condition…The saint is one who is as close to God as God is close to him.”
From Thomas Merton he shares:
“So I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk.
And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion…beyond words, speech, beyond concept…we discover an older unity…we are already one…and what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
He quotes the related parting advice to humanity of novelist E.M. Forster, “Only connect.”
The pinnacle of the book is the last chapter, “How Philosophy Heals,” in which he aptly describes the healing art of philosophy as a means to see the world more clearly, and the ailment, the dis-ease, for which philosophy is the cure: “an unquenchable thirst that renders many of us incapable of ever coming to full peace.”
“This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep recesses of our souls.”
All of art and even science struggles to name, express and/or analyze this longing yet we are rarely in direct touch with it and our modern world is fully equipped to cover it up.
“Still the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release…Whether or not we realize it, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence with its confining walls of finitude and mortality…We want the scales to be removed from our eyes so we can see again.”
Huston Smith leaves us with two primary guiding virtues; gratitude and empathy. What would the world be like “If empathy were the warp and woof of human relationships,” Smith muses.
The dear man hopes that he will be able to utter the famous last words attributed to the archbishop of Constantinople who died in 407, John Chrysostom:
“Thanks, thanks for everything. Praise, praise for it all.”
Editor: Edith Lazenby